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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in Tobolsk, Russia, on Dec. 1, 2020.

Alexei Nikolsky/The Associated Press

President Vladimir Putin ordered a large-scale voluntary vaccination program against COVID-19 to begin next week across Russia, saying teachers and doctors should be first in line to get the country’s flagship Sputnik V vaccine.

Putin gave the order during an online meeting with ministers on Wednesday, a day when Russia, which has the fourth highest number of recorded infections in the world, registered 589 new daily deaths from the coronavirus.

Putin said Russia will have produced 2 million vaccine doses within the next few days.

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Sputnik V, one of two Russian-made vaccines to have received domestic regulatory approval so far despite clinical trials being incomplete, requires two injections. A third vaccine is in also in the works.

Russia said last month that the Sputnik jab was 92 per cent effective at protecting people from COVID-19 according to interim results.

“Let’s agree on this – you will not report to me next week, but you will start large-scale vaccination … Let’s get to work already,” Putin told Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova.

“I understand that you’re using very careful language and it’s absolutely right that we are cautious. But I know that industry and the (health) network are in general ready. Let’s take this first step.”

Russia has already vaccinated more than 100,000 high-risk people, Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said during a separate presentation to the United Nations about Sputnik V.

According to the presentation, more than 45,000 people are currently participating in Sputnik V trials worldwide.

The rise in infections in Russia has slowed since reaching a high on Nov. 27, with 25,345 new daily cases reported on Wednesday.

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Russia has resisted imposing lockdowns during the second wave of the virus, preferring targeted regional curbs.

‘ABSOLUTE PRIORITY’

The Kremlin earlier gave assurances that Russians were first in line to be vaccinated, with Moscow also discussing supply deals with other countries.

“The absolute priority is Russians,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “Production within Russia, which is already being developed, will meet the needs of Russians.”

Authorities in St Petersburg, which reported 3,684 new infections on Wednesday, ordered bars and restaurants to close from Dec. 30 until Jan. 3, to combat the rise in cases there, the RIA news agency reported.

Museums, theatres and concert halls would be closed to the public in the city of more than 5 million people for the duration of Russia’s New Year holidays, from Dec. 30 to Jan. 10.

In Moscow, a remote learning period for secondary school students was extended beyond Dec. 6 to the end of the year.

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With 2,347,401 infections, Russia only has fewer COVID-19 cases than the United States, India and Brazil. It has recorded 41,053 deaths related to COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

Canadian authorities are assessing COVID-19 vaccine candidates while trials are underway, speeding up any eventual approval for wide use. But science reporter Ivan Semeniuk says it’s likely high-risk people will be prioritized for receiving any vaccine first, with some possibly getting it as early as the first part of 2021. The Globe and Mail

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